Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-One

Case for Sergeant Beef


Once again Beef took his information to Chatto.  I thought that this time there was something a trifle patronizing in the C.I.D. man’s manner.  Or if not patronizing, perhaps encouraging, as though he considered Beef a younger and less experienced man who must be kept going by kindness.
Without comment Beef described the marks on the tree near Mr. Chickle’s house and left the inspector to draw what conclusions he chose from them.  Chatto scribbled a note but said nothing.  When Beef referred to the evening on which we had watched Mr. Chickle with the outsize shoes, Chatto nodded impatiently.
“Yes,” he said.  “Chickle has reported that and brought in his finds.”
Chatto shewed some interest in Bridge’s story, particularly his account of the man in the raincoat.  It was agreed by all three of us that the man was Flipp, but the conclusions that each of us drew from the fact may have varied.  In the matter of the red tape Chatto nodded.  It was when Beef produced the Christmas card and described where it had been found that Chatto was really enlivened.
“That’s about the last straw,” he said.  “I think we may as well arrest Flipp.”
“Think so?” said Beef.  “Of course you know your business best, but it looks a bit circumstantial to me.  Nothing really to convince a jury with.  And Flipp’s not the man to plead guilty.”
Chatto looked mysterious.
“We’ve got something else,” he said quietly.  “The poison book.  Hidden under the floorboards in Shoulter’s room.  Flipp bought the morphine all right.  Signed for it under the name of Phelps two weeks before his wife died.  Our handwriting experts say there isn’t a doubt of it.”
“Then why not arrest him for the murder of his wife?  You seem to have a better case than what you’ve got here.”
Chatto shook his head.
“It needs the two cases,” he said.  “Much more convincing.  But why do you want me to wait?  Have you got another, iron in the fire?”
“Not what you could call an iron.  But I should like to know a little more about Mrs. Pluck.  She wasn’t on the bus that Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, Mrs. Pluck,” said Chatto in a voice which implied that he had no interest in the woman at all.
“Well, there are some rather queer things about Mrs. Pluck,” apologized Beef.
“How long do you think it will take to clear them up?”
“Give me three days.”
Chatto thought for a minute.
“It’s true that I would like to get something a bit more concrete before arresting Flipp.  We’ve got motive, opportunity, and presence near the scene of the crime.  But they don’t constitute a final proof.  I don’t think we shall make an arrest before next week-end.”
“That’s good,” said Beef.  “That’ll give me time to clear up all my points.  Chickle’s going away for a few days tomorrow.”
“Yes,” said Chatto, as though anxious to shew that he knew as much as or more than Beef about Chickle’s movements.  “To stay with his old friend Flusting in South London.  Neighbouring shopkeepers for twenty years, I understand.”
“Some Lodge,” said Beef.  That’ll give me a chance for a nice quiet chat with Mrs. Pluck tomorrow.”
“You’re welcome,” said Chatto.
But the “nice quiet chat”, as Beef had called it, turned out to be one of the most interesting conversations among the many in this loquacious case.
“Come in,” she said wearily, as though she had guessed that sooner or later we should arrive at the door with the object of questioning her.  “What is it this time?”
Beef slowly lowered himself into a chair.
“How’s Mr. Chickle?”
She looked up suspiciously.
Beef gave a ponderous shrug of his shoulders.
“Just wondered.”
“Well, if you want to know, he’s been funny.  Very funny.”
This common, but curious, misuse of the language did not seem to perturb Beef.
“In what way?” he asked.
“Ever since it happened, he won’t hardly speak.  He’s all right with you, I dare say, but it’s my belief he puts that on.  He used to be nice and chatty and always have a civil word when he met me.  Now he looks as though he’s seen a ghost half the time.  Proper miserable.  And he’s off his food.”
“Well, not so much worrying as miserable.  Anybody’d think he’d lost all his money.  I can’t make it out at all.  It’s something to do with the murder, because up to that afternoon he was right as a trivet.  Used to laugh to himself.  Thought himself someone, too.  D’you know one day after he’d been sitting in his room writing, he turned round to me and said—‘I’m a remarkable man, Mrs. Pluck.’  ‘Are you, sir?’ I said.  Well, I mean, what could you say?  ‘Yes,’he says, ‘and what’s more,’ he says, ‘the time will come when everyone’ll recognize it.’  ‘Indeed, sir?’  ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘long after my death, of course.’  And he laughs away to himself as though he was pleased as Punch.  But he’s not been like that since the murder, I can tell you.”
“Ah,” put in Beef encouragingly.  Then, since Mrs. Pluck volunteered no more information, he added:  “Did you ever see that big pair of lady’s shoes he had?”
She gave a croak of laughter.
“Did I not?  He had them brought home with a lot of old shoes he bought at the jumble sale.  Nothing any good except a pair of carpet slippers he took to and wore every night.  When I first saw them I asked him, whatever sort of an elephant they were made for, but he didn’t say a word, and I dare say that was because they’d belonged to Miss Shoulter and I’ve always fancied he was a bit sweet on her.  Well, they were lying about for weeks, then I never saw them again till a few nights ago when he brought them home wrapped up in an old bit of mackintosh after I’d gone to bed one evening.  Well, it was the night you came to see him last.  Next morning he saw me looking at them and spoke very sharp.  ‘Don’t touch those!’ he said.  ‘They’re for the police.’  And that was all.”
Beef spoke as sharply as Chickle must have done.
“Did you ever wear them?”
“Wear them?  Me?  I’d have been lost in them.”
“Did you even try them on?”
“No.  I did not.”
“I see.  Now there’s something I’m going to ask you straight and I want a straight answer.  What did you do on Christmas Eve?”
“I told you—”
“You told me you took the bus to Ashley and you never did nothing of the sort.  I want to know where you were.”
Mrs. Pluck’s long lips remained pressed close together.
“Come on, now.  Better speak straight out.  We shall get to know sooner or later.”
“It wasn’t anything special.  If you must know I met my daughter.”
“Well, we had nowhere to go for a chat.  I’d written to her to come over and meet me at the bus stop.  Then we went round to the house of a lady who’s a friend of mine.  I suppose you’ll want to know who she was, so I may as well tell you.  It was Mrs. Wilks, and we sat in her back room for an hour.”
“You must have wanted to see her urgent,” commented Beef.
“Not extra.  Only it was Christmas Eve and anyone likes to see her own daughter then, don’t they?”
“What did you talk about?”
“Family business.”
“Was Mrs. Wilks there?”
“No.  She left us together.  Well, it was private.”
“What time were you there till?”
“Last bus for Ashley.”
“You went straight from that house to the bus station?”
“And came straight home?”
“Never went up the path at all?”
“Certainly not.  And just as well I didn’t with a dead corpse lying there all the time.”
“Did you have anything to say to your daughter about your husband?”
“My husband? I told you he left me nearly twenty years ago.”
“You told me a lot of things.  And some of them were lies.”
“My daughter thinks he’s dead.”
“And is he?”
“1 don’t know and I don’t care.”
Mrs. Pluck was breathing heavily.  I thought that my theory was being confirmed.
“Where did you say you married him?”
“I didn’t say and I’m not going to say.  It’s my affair and no one else’s.  I don’t know why you want to keep on at me about things that are nothing to do with you.  You’re supposed to be finding out who murdered Shoulter.”
“And that,” said Beef triumphantly, “is exactly what I am doing.”
“Not by asking me questions, you’re not.  I had nothing to do with it.”
“What’s your daughter’s address?”
“Never you mind.”
“That’s silly, Mrs. Pluck.  We can find out easily enough.”
“You find out then.  Only don’t you start dragging her into this else you’ll have her husband after you and he was a sergeant-major in the Commandos.”
“Have to chance that,” said Beef.  “So you won’t tell me straight instead of having a lot of police inquiries made round her home?”
The police would never do such a thing.  Besides, Mr. Chickle says it’s Flipp they suspect and may arrest any minute.  They won’t pester me or her with a lot of silly questions.”
Beef stood up.
“Well, if you won’t tell me you won’t.  But it won’t take me long to find out.”
As we were walking home I asked him whether that wasn’t rather an idle boast and pressed him to tell me how in fact he meant to discover it.
“Easy.  We’ll go and see Mrs. Wilks now.  Ten to one she’s never thought to warn her.”
It took us some minutes after returning to Barnford to find out which was Mrs. Wilks’s cottage, but when we knocked on its door it was opened by a little, neat, smiling woman whom I mentally described as a nice old body.
“Excuse me', said Beef amiably.  “Is Mrs. Pluck’s daughter here?”
“Mrs. Muckroyd?  Not to-night.  She’ll be over in a day or two, I expect.  She always looks in here when she comes to see her Ma.  Was it urgent?”
“Not extra.  I shall be over her way tomorrow, so I can see her then.  I can get there by bus, can’t I?”
Mrs. Wilks smiled cheerfully and I felt rather ashamed to take advantage of her trusting good nature.
“Yes.  Change at Ashley.  You’ll find her home right in the village of Pitley.  Get down at the post office.  It’s nothing wrong, I hope?”
“Nothing at all.  I’m a friend of Mrs. Pluck’s, see?  Have you known her long?”
“Only since she came here.  Must be eight or nine months.”
“Well, I’m much obliged to you.  I’ll say good night.”
As we returned to the Crown, Beef chuckled.  “There you are.  Told you it would be easy.  Now it’s time for a drop of pig’s ear.”
“It always is,” I said bitterly.
“You’re right there,” Beef retorted.